Incident shows balancing act of special-needs students’ rights, safety

An incident at Christa McAuliffe Academy in which a student who threatened to shoot his teacher has prompted controversy over student discipline and school safety.
An incident at Christa McAuliffe Academy in which a student who threatened to shoot his teacher has prompted controversy over student discipline and school safety. File photo

When Tracy Gill read about a Wichita student who threatened to shoot his teacher, prompting a controversy over student discipline and school safety, she thought about her son.

“My son has spent lunches for weeks and weeks and weeks in the principal’s office because they didn’t want to run the risk of how he acts sometimes,” said Gill, whose third-grade son has autism and attends a Derby school.

“But it’s always been traced back … to a sensory issue,” she said. “My experience is that the school district always, always errs on the side of caution.”

The Wichita teachers union recently accused the district of mishandling an incident at Christa McAuliffe Academy, a K-8 school in southeast Wichita, in which an eighth-grader threatened to shoot a teacher and received a two-day suspension.

The teacher was on paid leave for more than a week while officials investigated the incident. She returned to her classroom Thursday but said in a written statement that she was “deeply concerned for my safety.”

Educators, psychologists and special-education advocates say the case illustrates the balance schools have to employ when handling verbal threats or other infractions involving students with special needs.

“Federal law provides protections to students with disabilities in the area of discipline, amongst many areas,” said Laura Jurgensen, an attorney for the Kansas Department of Education.

“I wouldn’t say that they’re untouchable, but … districts have additional hoops they have to jump through when it comes to discipline of students with disabilities,” she said. “Those hoops are designed to protect the student and keep them in school and keep ensuring that they get special-education services.”

‘Free and appropriate’ education

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, a federal law first passed in 1975 and updated several times since, was designed to provide children with disabilities the same opportunity for education as students who don’t have disabilities.

In Wichita, about 7,800 students – about 15 percent of the student population – qualify for special-education services.

In general, the law requires that special-needs students have an individualized education plan, and procedural safeguards ensure that they receive “free and appropriate” education in the “least restrictive environment.”

Nothing in the law restricts schools from disciplining students with disabilities. However, it leans against suspensions or expulsions of special-needs students whose behavior – such as verbal or even physical outbursts – violates the discipline code but may be out of the child’s control.

A student with Tourette’s syndrome, for example, may repeat vulgar, obscene words. Similarly, a child with autism who bangs her head on a desk over and over can’t be treated the same as a child who is doing the same thing to deliberately disrupt the class.

Students with serious behavioral issues at times may be moved to a more strictly controlled, therapeutic school such as Greiffenstein Elementary or Wells Alternative Middle School in Wichita, particularly when their behavior threatens their own safety or the safety of others. But the law leans toward keeping special-needs students among their regular-education peers.

“We can’t say, ‘Oh, you’re a little different, you’re going to go here,’ or ‘Oh, by the way, we don’t like the way you talk, so you’re going to go here,’ ” said Neil Guthrie, assistant superintendent for student support services in Wichita.

“The law is specific and sets a high standard – weapons, drugs, serious bodily injury,” Guthrie said. “They made it purposeful that you don’t just pick kids up and move them around because you think something might happen or you’re projecting something might happen.”

Threat assessment

When any student issues a threat, such as in the recent case at McAuliffe, Wichita schools follow a procedure known as a “threat assessment” to investigate the incident and determine its level of severity.

The process, pioneered by the U.S. Secret Service as a mechanism for investigating threats against the president, uses research conducted after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. A team of adults – the student’s parents and select officials, usually a psychologist, social worker, teacher and others – collects information about the student’s background and current circumstances.

The goal: Determine whether the threat is able or likely to be carried out and whether it was a manifestation of the child’s disability.

“My son has said lots of scary, threatening things,” said a Wichita father whose 17-year-old has been diagnosed with intermittent explosive disorder, a condition characterized by outbursts of rage and violence. “He doesn’t have a governor on him to go ‘You can only be a little bit mad about this.’ ”

The father asked not to be identified to protect his son, who attends a Wichita high school.

“I am beyond grateful for the administrators and district employees who have properly used the threat assessment protocols,” he said. “This idea that once a kid does something, he’s just a bad kid and needs to be put away with all the other bad kids – that doesn’t work. Putting (my son) with other bad kids just makes him worse.”

As part of the threat assessment – which officials conduct whether a child is special-needs or not – the team considers the student’s history, his access to weapons and the circumstances that led to the outburst.

“As a mental health professional, my first question is: ‘What is he saying to me with that behavior?’ ” said Gill, the Derby mom, who also volunteers as an education advocate for Families Together Inc., a support group for families of children with disabilities.

“Is it a real threat? Does the child have access to guns? Or was it just anger boiling over?” she said. “Who amongst us hasn’t at one time or another said something in the heat of the moment, in anger?

“I don’t think children should be held to any different standard.”

Discipline options

But what about behavior that disrupts classrooms or makes other students or teachers feel uncomfortable or unsafe?

“That’s a very common challenge,” said Mary Beth Klotz, director of educational practice for the National Association of School Psychologists.

The additional legal protections afforded special-needs students do not prevent schools from removing children from situations where they disrupt the education of others, Klotz said.

“Even in a circumstance where a given infraction, like making a verbal threat, is found to be a manifestation of the disability, the school still has a lot of steps they can take,” she said.

One option: Placing the student in an “interim alternative educational setting” for up to 45 days. That’s what local teachers union officials requested after the recent case involving the Wichita science teacher.

School officials also could transfer a student to a different school with parental consent. They could update the child’s education or behavior plan, such as adjusting time spent in regular classrooms vs. self-contained special-education classes. Or they could institute other measures, such as stricter supervision throughout the day.

“Discipline doesn’t always mean suspension or expulsion. There are many things that can be part of a disciplinary plan,” Klotz said.

“You want to make sure there’s a huge emphasis on prevention and supporting students and working on a really positive school climate. Because research shows time and again that those efforts really diminish the number of serious outbursts.”

Neurological diversity

Doug Anderson, executive director of special education for the Wichita district, said the number of students with autism, emotional disturbances and other issues is increasing. Balancing their educational rights and needs with overall school safety will continue to be an issue for educators.

“It’s not other people’s kids anymore. It’s all of us,” Anderson said. “It’s unlikely that anyone would have an experience in any public setting where they’re not going to come across somebody … who’s having (mental or behavioral) issues.”

Students or staff members who feel uncomfortable or threatened should report those things, and schools should respond, he said. But “no one benefits” when students with special needs who don’t pose a legitimate threat are sent to special schools away from the general population, he said.

“We call it neurological diversity: Learning how to work with a wide range of people who may behave differently in different social settings,” Anderson said. “Hopefully, we’ll never be back in a place where we have a homogenous group of kids in a classroom.

“Sheldon Cooper is popular. People like him now,” he added, referring to the “Big Bang Theory” sitcom character who exhibits characteristics common among people with Asperger’s syndrome.

“That’s a person who may have been kicked out of school some years ago.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias